It’s been some years since I lived on the street that figures in this story. It was never one of New York City’s fashionable blocks. There are no mansions there, no narrow houses of historical importance, no plaques attesting to former residents of consequence. It was not even a particularly beautiful block. The apartment buildings, though old, were architecturally indifferent. Commercial ventures existed side by side with the street’s residents. The brownstones that lined the street were mostly broken up into apartments, and most of those apartments were rentals. It was in this way, the way of the rent-controlled apartment, that the street had largely escaped the sweep of gentrification taking place all around it. Struggling musicians and actors and secretaries and window washers could still afford to live there, and they still did, some of them growing successful, some simply growing old. A government-subsidized senior residence that held AA meetings every Thursday night added to the slightly raffish nature of the place, as did the two churches in the doorway of each of which could be found its nightly resident homeless person: an enormous but orderly bearded man at the Lutheran church, a disoriented woman on the steps of the Catholic church. A bar at one end contributed to a sparse but constant supply of beer bottles on the sidewalk. The street’s proximity to Central Park made it a favorite with professional dog walkers who could hardly be expected to keep track of the waste of the seven or eight dogs pulling them forward. And so the street, not distinguished by great beauty to begin with, was not terribly clean either. And yet, it was the loveliest street I have ever lived on. And the most interesting.
“I live here! I live here!”
We’ll begin our story with Jody. She had lived on the block in her studio apartment since college, a luxurious accommodation at the time, certainly when compared to the dorm room she was leaving. After twenty years, the one room no longer struck her as luxurious, but the morning light was still lovely, the stabilized rent remained artificially low, and the large room with its beautiful bay window, high ceiling, and molding in the shape of twisted rope continued to be her home.
In the back of the room there was a step up into a doll-size kitchen, and behind that another step led to the bathroom. Jody had recently painted the apartment herself—a soft yellow color called Nigerian Peony. The moldings and the ceiling, of which she was particularly proud, were white and glossy. Whenever the room glowed in the sunlight from the big bay window, Jody congratulated herself on the serenity of her well-ordered existence, reassured that the weekends spent atop a tall ladder had been worth the effort. She kept the ladder in the linen closet with her expensive and carefully folded sheets. Jody was frugal in general, buying her clothes at reasonably priced chain stores, but sheets were in an entirely different category. Sheets were sacrificial objects offered with fear and humility to the gods of the night. Each night, Jody stretched out beneath the smooth Egyptian cotton not as a sybarite, but as a penitent, a pilgrim, a seeker, and what she sought was sleep.
In the middle of the night on which our story begins, as in the middle of most nights, Jody lay in bed and worried. She was a cheerful person by day, almost to the point of officiousness, but at night she suffered. The fragments of her busy life loomed above her like ghosts, like the IRS, like mothers-in-law. She stared into the darkness and faced her faults and her omissions. It was a heavy darkness that surrounded her at these times, both hot and close, the breath of recrimination, and, at the same time, vast, icy, and uncaring. She tried counting, of course, and counting backward, as if she were about to undergo an operation and had just been administered the anesthetic. She tried singing, sometimes the tune of a piece she was practicing, sometimes Gilbert and Sullivan songs, a staple of her household growing up, to which she knew all the lyrics. Sometimes she would have the impulse to sing the most melodic bits loud and clear, letting her voice ring out in the dark bedroom. But she would stop herself. Even if no one was beside her, and it was usually the case that no one was beside her, the sound of her voice among the demons of her sleeplessness was jarring and ridiculous.
She would tell people at school the next day that she hadn’t slept a wink. This was one of the few compensations for her insomnia: the other teachers nodded not with sympathy, exactly, but with understanding and, most important, with respect. They, too, had known sleepless nights, but they had eventually come to admit that Jody was the most sleepless of them all. It conveyed upon her a certain status that she had come almost to treasure.
Jody always smiled as she described her battle to fall asleep. Her habitual and sincere modesty fell away and she became positively smug. Perhaps she would have behaved differently if she had looked as sleepless as she was. But Jody’s eyes were clear and bright and no dark circles swelled beneath them. With her short blonde hair, and dressed in crisp ironed blouses and tight-fitting pants, she was pretty in an open, sunny way. She smelled fresh and clean and moved with a soft, invigorated energy. The children loved her, she worked hard, and people were grateful to her. They turned to her when they needed assistance or counsel on the job, and though she was only thirty-nine years old and looked younger, she was referred to affectionately as “Good Old Jody.”
Her colleagues respected her and they were friendly to her, but not one of them was her friend. Jody sometimes wondered if this was her fault. But then, who else’s fault could it be? It’s not the mailman’s fault, she would remind herself. It’s not the vice principal’s fault. It’s not even the Republicans’ fault. Wherein, then, did her own fault lie? This was a mystery to Jody, one she pondered at night in bed.
Naturally, she had gotten herself a dog. She originally set out to get a cat, thinking that as she seemed to be moving headlong into eccentric spinsterhood, she should begin collecting some of its accoutrements. But when she arrived at the ASPCA, she saw an elderly dog, an oversize pit bull mix so white it was almost pink, a female, who wagged her tail with such stately pessimism that Jody took the huge beast home. She named the dog Beatrice, though she had sworn not to give her new pet a person’s name, thinking it faddish and particularly pathetic for a childless woman. But the dog seemed to her to deserve a real name. Beatrice was not a youngster. The ASPCA had picked her up wandering the streets of the Bronx. Half starved and covered with ticks, she had obviously survived a harsh and difficult existence. Beatrice was a name with inherent dignity. Jody felt the old dog deserved that.
Fattened up and well groomed now, Beatrice was a noble-looking animal with enigmatic blue eyes that constantly sought out Jody’s with measured determination. She moved slowly, and though she was not playful, she was amiable and particularly loved strangers, throwing her great weight at them in a joyful greeting, unaware, presumably, that such a welcome might not always be, in fact, welcome. She trusted everyone, which was a testament to her gentle nature, as no one until now had ever earned her trust. But Beatrice seemed to be above the failures of the world, and they far beneath her. She had seen a lot, she seemed to be saying, and so nothing surprised her, nothing frightened her, nothing fazed her. She was lucky to be alive, and she seemed to know it.
Jody turned on the light and looked at Beatrice sprawled on the rug beside the bed. She petted the dog’s wide forehead. Beatrice’s head was big and boxy, like a child’s drawing of a dog’s head. She seemed to grin, her mouth and jaw were so wide. Her tongue lolled out like a great pink washcloth. Then Beatrice lifted her square head and licked Jody’s hand. Jody scratched the dog’s ragged ears and thought, I have become an eccentric music teacher with a dog instead of an eccentric music teacher with a cat. I take brisk walks in the rain with my dog by my side instead of curling up by the electric fire with a cup of tea and my cat on my lap. Although maybe, she thought, as Beatrice heaved her pale bulk onto the bed, there’s not all that much difference. And she smiled at her fate. She had gotten Beatrice eight months ago, eight months of blissful, energetic adoration and companionship on both sides. When she was lonely, she would glance at Beatrice. When she needed someone to talk to, she would talk to Beatrice. Jody felt that her life, though hardly complete by customary standards, would do very well.
Then, Jody met Everett and fell in love. This occurred just two days after the sleepless night described above. Jody, after a long week teaching small children to sing in harmony and tap wooden blocks to a 3/4 beat, had set out for a leisurely weekend walk with Beatrice. It was February and the sky was getting lighter each evening, but this particular afternoon it was snowing lightly, and the world was gray. In the park, Beatrice was as excited as a child, pushing her nose along the thin white film on the grass, rolling wildly, her muscular legs kicking the air. Amused and touched, Jody stayed even longer than usual, though it began snowing in earnest and she was wet through by the time they headed home. They waited at a red light at Columbus Avenue in the swirling wind, and it was when the light turned green and they crossed the street that Jody saw Everett. She didn’t know his name. But when he smiled at her through the shroud of snow, she thought she had never seen a man so beautiful in all her life. She turned and watched him go into the corner market. He must live nearby, she thought. He’s gone out to get milk. She would have stayed and waited and followed him home, but for the cold, the shame of it, and the large pit bull pulling on the leash.
I really am a spinster now, she thought—falling in love with an oblivious handsome stranger in the street. And, as if to prove it, she put on the teakettle as soon as she got home.
Everett hadn’t even known it was snowing until he got outside. He pushed open the door and whirling crystals stung his eyes. A bicycle chained to a signpost was topped with pillows of snow, the handlebars, the seat, the curve of the wheels.
Everett was an ordinary-looking man, until he smiled. Then he became handsome, beautiful even, and showy, like a big, fragrant prize-winning rose. He appeared boyish, a sullen boy but boyish nevertheless, with his somewhat round face and regular features. His hair was brown, neither dark nor light, with just the slightest touch of gray. Only when he smiled and became beautiful did people notice, as if for the first time, that his eyes were a radiant blue, that his cheeks bloomed with the pink of a child though he was fifty years old.
He hadn’t smiled much recently. He was feeling down in the dumps, as his mother would have put it. He had worked hard all his life and he continued to work hard, and he was bored. He frightened the young chemists who worked for him, and he was glad, it was a break in his boredom to watch them duck their heads and mumble their findings, their questions, even their names in tremulous confusion. When a fifty-year-old man is bored, he is said to be having a midlife crisis. Everett’s girlfriend, Leslie, had pointed this out to him.
“No,” Everett said. “Boredom is simply a failure of imagination.”
And as soon as the words came out of his mouth, he realized they were true, that his imagination was failing, and he became not only bored but depressed.
“You need Prozac or something,” Leslie said.
But Everett was already taking Prozac.
“Oh,” Leslie said. “Well. A trip, then.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Everett said. His tone was harsher than he meant it to be. Leslie was just trying to help, after all. But it occurred to him that though he had been dating Leslie for only a month, Leslie was one of the things he was bored with.
“This too shall pass,” she said, kissing him on the cheek.
They had been walking down Central Park West. The gray evening had settled around the Museum of Natural History. The blue glow of the planetarium rested easily within the night sky, the bare trees, the nineteenth-century brick. Everett noticed the curious harmony and found it comforting.
“Yes,” he’d said.
“Kind of like herpes,” Leslie said. “You know? Or shingles.”
Excerpted from The New Yorkers by Cathleen Schine. Copyright © 2007 by Cathleen Schine. Published in May 2007 by Sarah Crichton Books, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.